Parvathi, who graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India in 1960 was an introverted leader who made her mark on women’s technical education. She was a prudent administrator and a great listener, who went about accomplishing her goals quietly. In her career of thirty-four years, she was principal of three different women’s polytechnics working to advance women’s standing and participation in the world with practical education in technical fields.
Parvathi was born in Thalasseri in Kannur district, Kerala, on August 8, 1936. Her father Rao Sahib Atiyolil Appu was a Deputy Collector of Malabar during British rule and later in 1951, he represented Chevayur, Calicut, as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Madras. Her mother was a house wife. Parvathi had three sisters and four brothers.
After graduating from B.E.M. Girls High School in Kozhikode (then Calicut), Parvathi attended Guruvayurappan College in Calicut and graduated in 1956 with an undergraduate degree (B.A.) in Mathematics.
Parvathi had always been curious about how things worked and developed an interest in engineering as a career. Her son Sai Ram remembers his mother telling him about a conversation she had with Major B.H. Marley who was the Principal of CEG at the time she applied for admission to the college. Major Marley told her that as a telecommunication engineer she will have to climb telegraph and telephone poles and asked her if she will be able to do that. Parvathi told him, “Sure, I will be able to do that by trying my best”.
Parvathi joined the undergraduate program in telecommunications in CEG in 1956.
When Parvathi joined, the previous batch of women (Sundari Vellayan and Kamala Bai Ajwani) had already graduated from CEG in 1954. So in 1956, she was the only girl on the campus. Her lone status continued until Narayani and Sulochana joined CEG. There was no separate restroom for women in the campus until Parvathi was in her second year. The administration hired a woman as a typist so that Parvathi would have the company of a woman on the campus. Parvathi commuted to the campus from her house in Nandanam. The commute took the form of a bicycle ride and a boat trip across the Adyar River.
Parvathi was quite active in extracurricular activities. She was the college tennikoit (also called ring tennis) champion. She had a role in a CEG student play called “An Inspector Calls” by J. B. Priestley. In those days this was probably one of the very few times a girl student acted in a play.
Sai Ram also remembers his mother talking about a cartoon a fellow student drew. This was mentioned in a book on the history of CEG, Survey School to Tech. Temple 1794-1994. The cartoon had three panels. The first one had about fifty men walking into Guindy with a lone girl with a “T Square” walking with her head held down, the second panel had about ten women and forty men walking, and finally, the third panel had forty-nine women and one man walking with his head held down. I am told the enrollment of women in CEG now stands at roughly fifty percent. That cartoon was prescient!
Parvathi graduated from CEG in 1960 with a degree in Telecommunications Engineering.
Soon after graduating Parvathi joined Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) as a Junior Engineer and was then promoted to an Assistant Engineer.
In 1965, she joined the Madras Government Polytechnic for Women (now called Dr. Dharmambal Government Polytechnic College for Women) which was started by May George, an earlier CEG alumna, in 1963. She was promoted to Head of Section, Electronics & Communication Engineering, and later when the Electronics Instrumentation course was started, she became Head of the Department. After twelve years, in 1977 she was promoted to Principal, Government Polytechnic for Women, Madurai. In 1979 she returned to Madras (Chennai) as Principal. After ten years in Madras, in 1989 she moved to Coimbatore to head the Government Polytechnic for Women (GPCW) in Coimbatore, returning to Madras in 1991. In 1992, she took up the position of Joint Director at the Directorate of Technical Education, Tamil Nadu. She retired from services in 1994, thirty-four years after she started her career.
To rule with power and to make laws
we women came into this world.
In capabilities attainable women are no less than men.
Dance to celebrate that.
Four CEG alumni who were working in TNEB, Mary Mathew (CEG 1949), Parvathi, Sulochana (CEG 1962) and Narayani (CEG 1962), spoke to the interviewer from Ananda Vikatan about gender equality.
Parvathi told the interviewer that she had always wanted to become an engineer and was further inspired by Mary Mathew. She said she was not happy that only one or two women were admitted to engineering studies and implored the colleges to admit more women to technical studies. The interviewer remarked that women graduate from colleges but then settle down to family life, and therefore the seats in the technical programs are better given to men who can serve the nation. Parvathi had a great answer for him: “A lot of men graduate as lawyers but end up in clerical jobs, so it is not a valid argument.”
Parvathi was an incredibly capable administrator, described by her former colleagues as an introvert. She pioneered a number of new programs. She was an excellent speaker, often delivering impromptu speeches as the occasions demanded. Her leadership style was participatory. She welcomed ideas from her faculty and staff to make the polytechnics better. Hema Krishna, who used to work with her, recalled an incident about an auditorium that was built in the Madras Polytechnic with a capacity for four hundred people and a very spacious stage. Parvathi asked Hema to come up with the idea for interior decoration, knowing Hema had an eye for it. Hema designed poses of Indian dances and created plywood cut-outs to use as decoration, using the fabrication facilities at the Teachers’ Technical Training Institute (TTTI), now known as National Institute of Technical Teachers’ Training and Research. She enlisted the help of the polytechnic students to paint and install them. Everyone was quite impressed with how this turned out.
Even though she was an introvert, it did not stop Parvathi from approaching industry leaders to sponsor Polytechnic events such as inter-polytechnic sports or campus exhibitions. Christobel Jeyakumari Honibald, who worked with her in Coimbatore, expressed admiration for the way in which Parvathi handled the sponsorships. Parvathi instituted a policy whereby the vendors would submit their invoices directly to the sponsors, thus removing the burden on the Polytechnic staff to be responsible for handling transactions that could potentially raise questions of impropriety.
In 1991, the Canada India Institutional Cooperation Project (CIICP), a Human Resource Development Project in Technical Education Department, was launched through a Memorandum of Understanding between Government of Canada and Government of India. The Government of Canada, through Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), funded the Project.
One of the thrusts of this project was “Women in Development” or WID. WID is about supporting the development of activities in health, governance, and education to promote gender equality. Parvathi was selected as State WID Representative for Tamil Nadu. She brought together the state polytechnics to share the projects and learn from each other.
She retired in 1994 as a Joint Director of Technical Education in Madras.
Parvathi married M.A.Sulochanan in 1964 in a traditional Indian arranged marriage. He was an accountant at Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) and later moved to Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals (IDPL), Madras. A tragic accident took his life in 1980. Parvathi was left to care for her two sons, who at that time were in school at 11th and 7th grade. Her tremendous will power and her deep religious beliefs gave her the strength to carry on. At a time when there were not many mothers working outside the home, she took it upon herself to be available to her sons every minute she was not busy working. Sai Ram remembers that her colleagues at the polytechnics were very supportive of her and were almost like a family.
Parvathi’s sons Sai Ram and Sai Krishnan are also CEG alumni. Sai Ram (CEG 1986) graduated in Electrical & Electronics Engineering, then went on to get his master’s degree from IIT (Madras) Chennai, and currently Manager of Innovation at FedEx. Sai Krishna (CEG 1990) graduated in Production Engineering, got an MBA from Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, and is a VP at Emerson.
Parvathi was a religious person. She spent a lot of time in prayer and visiting temples. She developed a heart condition and had a pacemaker installed in 1992 while she was still working. Her heart’s condition was misdiagnosed and worsened progressively and she died in 1998. She was only 62.
The Introverted Leader
Parvathi went about accomplishing what she needed to do quietly. Her leadership was inclusive, valuing opinions and encouraging participation from her faculty and staff. She was persistent in her approach to dealing with adversity and prevailed. Her former colleagues remember her as an honest, capable and meticulous administrator and a good teacher. Many of us are not extroverts, but that doesn’t need to hold us back. We have a very good role model in Parvathi of how much a good introverted leader can accomplish.
Parvathi’s son Sai Ram was kind enough to gather details about his mother’s life and put up with a lot of questions from me. Without his help, there was no story to tell.
Parvathi’s fellow CEG alumnae Indira Premkumar (1966) and Prema Thomas (1970) provided me information on her career and also put me in touch with former colleagues Hema Krishnaswamy and Christobel Honibald who provided additional information. I owe them my gratitude.
This is the tenth write-up in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG alumnae. If you like what you read, please “like” and share.
You can read the life stories of other CEG alumnae here:
My goal is simply to encourage more girls to study engineering and science, enter the workforce and stay in it, and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of our world. I am hoping stories of the CEG women will inspire many to do so.
I will be writing more such posts here and then will be collecting them into a book for publishing.
If you have information about the women who are CEG alumni from the 1940s to the 1960s, please contact me to help make these posts complete.